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Beck - Sea Change

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Artist: Beck

Album: Sea Change

Label: Interscope

Review date: Sep. 26, 2002

See Change

While name-changing or having multiple names can be a dicey proposition for a band or an artist of any sort, in some cases it is quite appropriate. Perhaps Beck (born Beck Hansen), who has used his single-word name for the duration of his career, could be due for such a mix-up. His new album, Sea Change, is a breakup-ballad-laden dedication to his own failed relationship. It’s missing the lunacy of Odelay and Midnite Vultures and the general strangeness of Mellow Gold, One Foot in the Grave, or even Mutations, but what it lacks in shock value, it more than makes up for in sincerity. For the first time in his career he has made an album that is clearly not a product of “Beck”, the single-syllabled entertainer, but rather that of “Beck Hansen”, the person.

Every song on the album deals with some sort of romantic loss or failure. The apparently heart-breaking separation from his longtime girlfriend has cleared Beck’s mind of fun-loving nonsense and focused it entirely on the nature of his relationships, both specific and abstract. It’s painfully obvious, but difficult not to note, that Sea Change is a break-up album throughout. From the very first song, “The Golden Age,” on which Hansen notes “These days I barely get by”, to “Lonesome Tears”, which finds him crooning “Lonesome tears / I can’t cry them anymore”, agony and regret is more than just a recurring theme; it is a guiding principle. Even “It’s All In Your Mind,” which was originally released seven years ago as a 7”, fits right into place as Hansen reflects “I wanted to be a good friend.”

Beck has written music in the first-person before, but has generally done so in character, singing about getting tacos from Satan, or haircuts from the devil. He brushed upon his personal life on Mutations’ “Nobody’s Fault But My Own”, perhaps foreshadowing the impending, but never has he been very clear and up-front about himself. Here his lyrics are straight-forward – simple, at times – but rarely pedestrian or dopey. A line like “These days I barely get by / I don’t even try” can easily sound trite or put-on, but Hansen frames and inflects such that one can’t help but sigh along with him. Not every moment is executed quite so smoothly, and when he opens “Guess I’m Doing Fine” with the “There’s a bluebird at the window / I can hear the songs he sings”, he achieves quite the opposite effect: an embarrassingly contrived and cheesy metaphoric image. It’s a rare moment, but certainly a noticeable one.

Musically Beck doesn’t stray far from the moods and tones that he and producer/engineer Nigel Goodrich established on 1998’s Mutations. Full-sounding acoustic guitar provides the primary backdrop for Hansen’s warbling (and decidedly un-funky) vocals. But while odd plucking and plinking gave Mutations a whimsical nudge, on Sea Change these are replaced with melodramatic string arrangements, orchestrated by Beck’s father (a touching inclusion given the nature of the album’s subject). The strings are, at times, cinematically overbearing, but generally they succeed in creating a somber and tastefully morose mood. Extravagant string arrangements have rarely avoided pretensions this well since Nick Drake’s Bryter Lyter, and are well complemented by Beck’s sparse and distinct electric guitar leads.

The album’s highest points, however, come late in the album, when all of the elements – the lyrics, the strings, the mood – come together. “Already Dead” begins with a beautifully and happily plucked line, leading into Beck’s forlorn “Time slips away all the pleasures of the day”, all the while maintaining a relatively jovial musical mood. This slips easily into a minor progression as Beck repeatedly cries: “Already dead to me now.” The next song, “Sunday Sun,” follows a similar formula, this time with more heavy-handed production aiding in the transition from the up-front vocals of the verses to the reverbed howls of the chorus. The digital tablas are a bit over-the-top, but are not intrusive enough to spoil the moment.

Sea Change certainly marks a highlight of some sort for Beck Hansen. It is consistent in tone, mood, and most importantly, in quality. The inclusion of any sort of incongruence or even anything with hit potential could have been a real spoiler, but Beck tastefully declines this possibility. Instead Sea Change concludes as a tragedy unresolved, with Beck’s broken heart on his sleeve all the while. Surely the (relatively) bare-bones sound will come as a disappointing surprise to many fans, but Sea Change is no more middle-of-the-road than any of Beck’s nuttier albums. If anything the self-deprecating frankness perhaps makes it his riskiest album to date. In the end it leaves the listener torn between wishing happiness upon Beck Hansen, the sad person, or wanting to hear more from Beck Hansen, the sad musician, and most will probably opt for the former. It’s a shelving of sorts for “Beck”, and a painful coming-out for Beck Hansen. And it's a mighty strong one.

By Sam Hunt

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